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Georgia: Clash Of Interests Tests U.S.-Russian Relationship

As Georgia heads toward a new era after the fall of President Eduard Shevardnadze, the United States and Russia are struggling to influence events in the troubled South Caucasus country. But while Moscow and Washington may be allies in the terrorism war, their partnership is being put to the test in Tbilisi.

Washington, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In yet another show of U.S. support for Georgia's post-Shevardnadze transition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is visiting Tbilisi today to join an American delegation for talks with the country's transitional political leaders.

Rumsfeld's trip comes as a team of State Department, Pentagon, Treasury, and National Security Council officials are already in Tbilisi consulting with leaders on the country's transition following the fall last month of President Shevardnadze in what the new leadership is calling a "Revolution of Roses."

It also comes amid a sharp divergence between Washington and Moscow over Georgia's future as the two regional powers struggle to assert their influence in the South Caucasus. Analysts say that while Washington seeks a Western-oriented, democratic Georgia, Moscow wants Tbilisi in its sphere of influence.

Whether that chasm is bridged will have a big effect on the emerging partnership between the United States and Russia, according to Zeyno Baran, a regional analyst with the Nixon Center in Washington. "Clearly, the Russian-American cooperation on energy and broader issues will continue, but the content and the quality of the relationship will really depend on how Russia behaves in Georgia," Baran said.

Georgian acting President Nino Burdjanadze, an opposition leader appointed after Shevardnadze quit amid allegations of vote rigging, accuses Russia of interfering in Georgia's domestic politics and has urged Moscow to move away from its Soviet-era "Big Brother"-style meddling.

Tbilisi was also angered last week when Russian officials met leaders from South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- which both broke free of Georgian control more than a decade ago -- and from Adjaria, which appears not to want secession but is adamant about maintaining its autonomy from Tbilisi.

At a meeting of the Organization of Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) in the Netherlands this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a veiled warning to Russia not to back Georgia's breakaway regions, where Moscow has troops.

"The international community should do everything possible to support Georgia's territorial integrity throughout and beyond the election process," Powell said. "No support should be given to breakaway elements seeking to weaken Georgia's territorial integrity."

Responding to U.S. criticism, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 4 December that Moscow is doing its best to pull troops and weapons out of Georgia's separatist regions, as well as Moldova. But he insisted that Russia could provide no timetable for any pullout.

Dutch Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the meeting in Maastricht that all 55 members of the OSCE -- except Russia -- agreed to a statement supporting "the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Georgia."

Analyst Baran believes the Russian position at Maastricht does not bode well for U.S.-Russian relations, which have been improving on the basis of counterterrorism and energy policy since the September 2001 attacks on America.

"If they continue being perceived to be supporting separatist regimes, and as it gets closer to the 4 January [presidential] elections [in Georgia], again, if they are perceived to be providing some political support for [Adjar Autonomous Republic leader] Aslan Abashidze -- who has said he will boycott the elections -- then I think that will bring Russia at odds with the Western community," Baran said.

But Curt Welt sees things a little differently. An analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Welt told RFE/RL that it is only logical that Russia is pursuing its interests in Georgia and that it will continue to do so.

In fact, despite the strong rhetoric from Washington and the OSCE this week, Welt believes Russia continues to have the upper hand in Georgia. He said he believes Moscow might be willing to work out a deal whereby the separatist regions and Adjaria stay in Georgia provided that Tbilisi remains in Russia's sphere of influence.

That would mean giving up all talk of hosting U.S. troops or joining NATO, which Georgia reiterated this week that it will continue to try to do sometime after this decade.

Welt said such a deal would put Georgia in a tough predicament. "It really leaves the Georgians available to make a choice: what's it worth to them to restore their territorial integrity. And if they don't choose to go down that path, then it's going to take a heck of a lot of diplomatic skill and a lot of support from the West, I think, to negotiate some other solution to all of Georgia's problems," he said.

Welt said he believes that both Washington and Moscow should work to understand that their interests need not conflict in Georgia. He said the United States should make it clear that it is not seeking to displace Russia from the region, which has long been part of its sphere of influence.

But Welt also believes that for the moment, compromise appears unlikely, even if Georgians are likely to be the victims of any clash of U.S. and Russian interests. "Unless there's a way to really get Russia to agree to some kind of solution where Russia has influence in Ossetia, Abkhazia, and [Adjaria], but the center of Georgia is still more or less Western-oriented -- if they're able to come up with a solution like that, then maybe there's a way to do it. But I just don't see how right now," he said.

The potential for instability in Georgia was highlighted when an explosion shook the state television center in Tbilisi late on 3 December. No injuries were reported.

Georgian officials have warned for days about possible attempts to foment chaos ahead of the election. The economic situation in the struggling ex-Soviet republic is dire.

Burdjanadze told the nation in a live broadcast on 4 December that "there is no money to pay pensions, salaries, or to procure energy resources for the winter period."